Various Artists’ The Rough Guide to the Music of India

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Liz Milner penned this review.

Hurray for Bollywood! Three cheers for Ken Hunt, the compiler who has unearthed a treasure trove of fabulous music! Thumbs down to the author of the sleeve notes who has deprived his audience (especially newcomers to Indian music) of the background information that would help to illuminate this fantastically diverse, rich and beautiful musical tradition.

The Rough Guide to the Music of India, subtitled Sitar to Bollywood: Sounds of the Subcontinent is a garland of music which seeks to present all the musical traditions of India: classical, light classical, folk and popular music. Though the liner notes bill this CD as a “point of entry,” there is a paucity of information on the nature of the music and how it evolved. Descriptions of the instruments are sketchy, and there are no translations of lyrics beyond one-sentence summaries. I would also have loved a map of the musical regions of India.

The writer of the liner notes also strove so hard to be strikingly unconventional and cute that it was painful at times. Phrases such as “upset the jackfruit cart” abound. I’d have preferred useful information to the cloying, artsy prose. I was, however, grateful to the author for providing me with one of the most outrageous mixed metaphors I’ve ever seen. I refer to his suggestion that listeners “glimpse the flavor of Kadri Gopalnath’s verve.” Wow!

The CD opens with a high-energy song that blows all my preconceptions about shy Indian women out of the water. Bollywood megastar Asha Bhosle sings “Aaj Ki Raat” (“Tonight Is The Night”), a popular Hindi film song which was covered by the Kronos Quartet. Bhosle, who is identified in the liner notes as “the world’s most recorded vocalist,” performs the song with an arch erotic intensity that sizzles. It sounds like delicious come on, but, alas, there is no translation! I searched the Rough Guide Web site, I did a Google search on the key words “Aaj Ki Raat,” but I could find no explanation of what the song meant. I even e-mailed The Rough Guide to no avail. It seems cruel and unusual to include a dynamite song like this one in an anthology without giving some explanation of what it’s about. With a repeated groove straight out of ’60’s spy movies, the instrumentation on “Aaj Ki Raat” features what the liner notes refer to as “a kitchen sink cornucopia” of instruments. I heard flute, tabla, strings and horn section, electric guitars, and drums. It would have been nice if a list of the instruments and musicians had been provided for this track.

From my Internet search, I found that Ms. Bhosle has a bio right out of a Bollywood film. The daughter of one of India’s most respected classical singers; she spent her childhood in competition with an equally talented sister. She was achieving success as a classical singer, but then she married against her family’s wishes and her family disowned her. Her husband left her, and to support her children, she was forced to become a pop singer. Her hard work and diligence made her a star, but the rivalry with her sister continued, fueled perhaps by canny flacks who realized that a “war of the divas” would give both singers a greater share of media coverage.

Anyway, Bhosle has had a fascinating life, but you would never know it from the liner notes of this CD. The lives and careers of each of the performers on this CD are equally strange and fascinating; it is a shame the liner notes gave so little detail on this. Since the intention of this CD is to introduce the music of an entire culture to an audience that may not be at all familiar with it, I think it is important to provide information that places the artists in their musical and cultural context. If including detailed liner notes is too expensive, how about a Web site?

Asha Bhosle’s very modern, very Western sound is contrasted by the second selection by Bapi Das Baul & Baul Bishwa which features a very traditional sound. Baul means “mad” and Bauls, the wandering musicians of Northern India, aspire to a holy madness. Bapi Das Baul belongs to the most influential Baul musical dynasty. His grandfather Narbani Das Baul collaborated with the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. His father, Purna Das Baul was an inspiration to Western artists such as Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan.

The Rough Guide selection from Bapi Das Baul is a folk song, “Vhaba Pare” (“the Banks of Life”). In the song, the lovelorn narrator watches the river flow and contemplates his separation from his beloved. The whole song can also be read as a lament for man’s separation from God. The track features a rich, mesmerizing mix of soaring vocals, flute, tabla, finger cymbals, and stringed instruments. From Bapi Das Baul’s Web site it appears that Bauls use instrumentation that is different from other musicians in Northern India. It would have been interesting if the CD liner notes had given some indication of what those differences are.

The dreamlike “Vhaba Pare” is followed up by another religious song, “Sarasamukhi,” performed by N. Ravikiran who is the master of a South Indian stringed instrument called the vina. The vina is played with a slide to create a haunting sound that mimics the human voice. Once again the liner notes let me down! They say that that this selection is a hymn played in the “kriti” style. Unfortunately the notes give no indication of what “kriti” style is. “Sarasamukhi” is followed by “Desh,” an instumental by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt & Swapan Chaudhuri. “Desh” features the lovely guitar-like sound of the Mohan Vina (an East Indian modification of the Spanish Guitar).

M.S. Subbulakshmi’s “Bruhi Mukundhehi” sounds fresh and rhythmically exciting though it was recorded in 1941 as part of a movie soundtrack. This is not the case for Hemant Kumar’s 1952 recording “Sun Ja Dil Ki Dastaan”(“Come Close, My Hearts Desire”) which is infested with twee musical cliches. (Imagine one of those 1940’s “South of the Border” movies with people wearing fruit on their heads). The Rough Guide liner notes describe the instrumentation as “romantic…with its light Latin beats and slinky string section.” I found it hokey. If the sound of Ricky Ricardo doing “Babalu” sends chills up your spine, then this is for you.

Sultan Khan & Zakir Hussan’s “Rajasthani Folk Song” is a gentle lullaby played on the sarangi and tabla. It is a lovely, very traditional piece. I would have liked more information on what a sarangi is and how it is played. I heard a plucked instrument and a bowed one and I don’t know whether this is because the sarangi can be played both ways or whether another instrument got slipped into the mix.

Pandit Kamalesh Maitra is considered the “last” master of the tabla tarang, an instrument comprised of ten to 16 tabla drums. The instrument’s name is translated as “drums of waves” and is capable of combining rhythm, melody, and harmony into a flowing wave of sound. This cut presents an awesome display of rhythmic agility. The liner notes were right on target when they described Kamalesh Maitra as a “one-man gamelan orchestra.”

A more pop-oriented note is sounded by Carolene. His voice and percussion number “Thee, Thee” (“Fire, Fire”) sounded like early Sheila Chandra, only Sheila did it better. The New Bharat Brass-Band is a 16-piece brass and percussion band from Bangalore is typical of bands found all over India that play music for celebrations. As the liner notes point out, the intonation on this cut sounds funky to Western ears. I admired their gusto, but their overblown, screechy pitch set my teeth on edge. Having said this, I have to turn around and say that the intonation on Kadri Gopalnath’s saxophone arrangement of a classical Hindu piece was a bit too Westernized. There were none of the “in-between” pitches that are so characteristic of Indian music.

The CD returns to a more traditional sound with the Rais Khan and Sultan Khan-Bhairavi who perform a classic extemporized raga “Bhairavi,” on sitar and sarangi. This is followed by a high energy performance in traditional style by Musafir. Musafir (“Traveler” in Farsi), is a folk performance ensemble from Rajasthan in northwest India, the ancient homeland of the Romany people. The music played by Musafir is thus a distant cousin of the musical styles of European Romanies. Musafir is the brain child of Hameed Khan, a tabla player with a background in jazz, Arabic music, North Indian Classical music, Breton music, and various crossover styles. Musafir’s original compositions combine Rajasthani rural folk music with influences from Qawwali (Muslim devotional music), Indian film music, Arab popular music, and Hindustani (North Indian Classical) music.

This CD offers a wonderful glimpse of the infinite variety of Indian music. It will get the sound into your ears, but it will not be much help in navigating this vast musical universe.

(World Music Network, 2002)

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Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don't always. It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we've done.

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